Tiny Galena, Alaska, is struggling after 90 percent of its buildings were destroyed by Yukon River flooding that overwhelmed the 400-resident, mostly Native village.
“It’s scary,” said flood evacuee Shane Edwin to the Alaska News Miner after escaping the waters with little more than the clothes on his back. “A whole bunch of chaos. The roads are all gone. The houses are flipped over. It’s just trashed. I couldn’t grab anything, not even my ID. The water came so fast.”
The waters began rising on May 28 when an ice jam stopped up the river. Alaska Homeland Security’s rescue program was triggered after the water topped the dike walls surrounding Galena’s airport and threatening the town’s evacuation route. The Alaska Air National Guard and the National Army Guard sent aircraft to help fly residents out, the Alaska Dispatch reported.
The Tanana Chiefs Conference, the 42-village tribal consortium, also helped in the evacuation. In total, more than 300 people were removed to Fairbanks or other communities nearby. As of press time, it still was not clear when they would be able to return.
“I can only describe it as a fearful, miserable day,” wrote evacuee Eric Huntington to the News Miner after arriving safely in Ruby, Alaska. “With no electricity or running water and a limited supply of water and food, I wouldn’t describe it as anything less than a life and death situation because we had almost no time to grab anything from our homes.”
Alaska Governor Sean Parnell requested a federal disaster declaration on June 14. The floods, his office said in a statement, “resulted from a rapid thaw after an extended, colder-than-average spring,” leading to an ice jam which, combined with runoff from the melting snow in the Alaska Gateway, caused the catastrophic flooding.
Damage was already above $10 million and was still being assessed at press time. Public infrastructure and more than 225 homes are among the casualties. Numerous Native Alaskan communities were also damaged besides Galena, including the Athabascan village of Circle; the Gwich’in Athabascan Indian village of Ft. Yukon; Eagle, which is predominantly Han Kutchin Indian; Alakanuk, Emmonak, and the Gulkana area, Parnell wrote in his letter requesting federal disaster aid.
“The disaster has left 194 homes uninhabitable, and keeping Alaskans safe and restoring them to their homes remains our priority,” Parnell said. “We will pursue all resources available to assist with the recovery and rebuilding efforts.”
Parnell had already issued a state disaster declaration on May 31 to activate Alaska’s disaster recovery programs, and the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management is also assisting evacuees.
The Tanana Chiefs warned Galena residents that it was not yet safe to return.
“Galena is a hazardous place at this time due to diesel, sewage, and ice damage,” the consortium wrote in a letter to residents on June 2, citing sewage spills, hazardous materials, spilled fuel, destroyed dump, loose power lines, downed and falling trees, heavy-equipment traffic and limited infrastructure as factors making it “dangerous to visit.” The letter urged residents and those from surrounding communities to stay away.
Below, a slideshow video of how it all unfolded.